Traveling to Bowie for Little Theatre's season finale has a 'Suite' reward

For The Baltimore Sun
'Suite' production at Prince George's Little Theatre.

Prince George's Little Theatre is closing its 2014-2015 season at nearby Bowie Playhouse with Michael McKeever's farce "Suite Surrender," a show that takes audiences to 1942 Florida at the luxurious Palm Beach Royale Hotel as two Hollywood divas arrive to appear in a USO benefit fundraiser.

This famed — and long-feuding — pair, singer Claudia McFadden and movie actress Athena Sinclair, refuse to appear together, onstage or off, and are determined to avoid each other everywhere in the hotel.

The play's title, "Suite Surrender", describes events that occur when McFadden and Sinclair find they have been mistakenly booked into the same suite in separate bedrooms, a situation that evolves to perplex, then infuriate, both.

John Degnan, who chose and directed Ken Ludwig's "The Fox on the Fairway" to close the troupe's previous season, was invited to return to direct another largely undiscovered farce, this one debuting in Boca Raton in 2008.

McKeever's "Suite Surrender" puts characters in improbable situations where they struggle to find a way out, often embroiling everyone else in the task. The antics create physical comedy delivered in fast-paced, near-constant action filled with mistaken identities, slamming doors and mounting frustration amid rapid orders and counter-orders.

Such farce components present challenges for the director and performers. Degnan does a masterful job moving action at lightning pace, expertly blocking scenes so that each character appears for maximum visual humor. As Degnan says, "Blocking notes for this show looked like an excerpt from [an] NFL playbook."

Helping Degnan maintain this comic pace is an expert cast of nine actors — some veterans, some making their debuts, and each intent on meeting all challenges.

Degnan is assisted by a technical crew that includes set designer and construction lead Keith Brown, who has created a suitably elegant set that works well to accommodate near-simultaneous exits and entrances. Prince George's Little Theatre president Roy Peterson contributes his skills in set decoration, painting and design.

Sound design is crucial, and here it's expertly provided by Malia Murray. Pre-recorded piano music is by David Larko and serves as singers' accompaniment. Lighting design is by Garrett Hyde, and experienced costume designer Ashley Amidon creates period costumes enhancing all roles, from diva to society matron to bellhop.

Before either diva arrives, the fun begins with a pair of hotel bellhops expected to provide calm service to clients, a task that grows increasingly difficult for Francis and Otis as they are charged with preparing the divas' room.

As Francis, Alex Hyder makes his second Prince George's appearance. Nic Sticinski's debut with the troupe as Otis marks his first show after high school. Both deliver lines smartly and execute every comic maneuver without mishap.

As hotel general manager Bernard Dunlap, veteran actor James McDaniel helps hold the plot together. Dunlap is required to be on stage almost constantly, a task McDaniel handles well as he conveys increasing frustration amid disaster without his character's losing composure. Appearing precisely on cue at key intervals, McDaniel keeps the pace moving swiftly as he deals with comic distractions.

Society matron Mrs. Everett Osgood, who has arranged the USO concert at the hotel, is played by Bowie Playhouse veteran Bernadette Arvidson, now making her PGLT debut. Arvidson combines grace and comedy in the role — at one point entering the suite with ease, avoiding removal by interpreting Dunlap's extended arm as a partner's dance invitation.

Also attempting to intrude into the divas' suite is gossip columnist Dora del Rio, played by Jenn Robinson in her PGLT debut. Robinson conveys determined gusto as she visits the battling divas in their suite in search of a major scoop.

Claudia McFadden is played by Pamela Northrup, whose imposing stature and sonorous voice add comic substance to her every demand. Northrup's Claudia insists that Dunlap recover her frequently disappearing bouquets of white roses, pressures her beleaguered personal secretary, Pippet, and is most intimidating when confronting archenemy Athena Sinclair.

In "Someone to Watch Over Me" and in "I'll Be Seeing You," Northrup displayed an adequate singing voice. This cannot be said of duet partner Sinclair, as played by Karen Kellner, who may have been deliberately off-key for comic effect.

Less flamboyant than McFadden, Kellner's Athena provides a less formidable but equally spoiled diva in a 1940s Hollywood glamour contrast. Kinder than McFadden to her personal secretary, Athena seems happier in a life that includes flaunting her charms to welcome admirers.

McFadden's secretary, Pippet, is played with comic flair by Paul Berry, while Sinclair's secretary, Murphy, is played by PGLT-debuting Lea Scherini, who shows remarkable agility as she takes athletic tumbles.

"Suite Surrender" continues through May 16 at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie. For showtimes and tickets, go to the Prince George's Little Theater website pglt.org or call 301-937-7458.

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